Sunday, October 14, 2012

Journalistic Bias in Science Reporting

How good are newspapers at reporting on follow-up scientific studies on a particular subject, as opposed to focusing only on the initial high-profile hypothesis?

To find out, a team of scientists from France and the U.S. identified the top ten most cited scientific articles published in the 1990s on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Then they examined the follow-up scientific articles related to each of the ten articles to try to ascertain whether the initial hypotheses in those ten articles had actually stood up to subsequent scientific evaluation. Lastly, they looked at newspaper coverage of both the top ten articles and the follow-up articles. According to the team of scientists, only two of the top ten most cited articles on ADHD were subsequently fully confirmed by other scientific articles. The other eight were either refuted, “strongly attenuated”, or considered unlikely by subsequent scientific articles. This is exactly how good science works; through a continuous process of tests, hypothesis modification, and retests, we come ever closer to the truth, and its not always what it seems at the beginning.

Newspaper coverage of ADHD, however, showed a distinct bias toward the sensational new hypothesis or initial findings, regardless of whether the hypothesis or the findings later proved to be true or not. There were 223 newspaper articles covering the hypotheses and initial findings of the top 10 scientific studies on ADHD in the 1990s. In contrast, there were only 57 newspaper articles covering all 67 scientific follow-up studies, and only one of those newspaper articles reported that a “top 10” paper was being “attenuated” by the newer scientific study’s findings.

No wonder the public is confused. They learn something from the public media one day, and never learn later that our knowledge about the subject has changed through good scientific investigation. Or as the study’s authors put it, “Because newspapers failed to inform the lay public that most initial scientific claims were later refuted or strongly attenuated, they did not reflect the evolution of scientific knowledge."

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